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Blogoir (blŏg·wαr)  sb. 1. A digital hybrid of blog and memoir presented on a daily basis, or not. 2. fig. A quixotic attempt to make sense of the senseless; a spark of hope. 3. v. To narrate in a not necessarily coherent way one’s life and views. Also attrib.
3. Behold yon ambassador, once indeed thus ample and conceited yet now so meagre, wan with care – methinks he doth b. too long Hen IV Pt III

Ukraine, Russia and Europe

2nd March 2014

Things have slackened off again here, what with one thing and another. But here is the hefty piece I wrote about Ukraine last week for the Daily Telegraph. To be precise, I did not write it. I dictated it into my iPad from my hotel room in Gjakova (also known as Djakovica, down near the Kosovo/Albania border).


The Ukraine problem now poses a genuinely dangerous threat to European security. A case can be made for redrawing the map of this part of Europe to allow those parts of Ukraine that wish to integrate closely with Russia to do so, leaving the rest to move closer towards western Europe. Making any such policy happen through calm negotiation will be next to impossible. Moscow is already accusing the opposition in Ukraine of “acting illegally” in trying to topple President Yanukovych. Does this open the way to Russia intervening to “protect” those elements that call for protection against such illegality?

It’s not likely that Russia will want to swallow a formal partition of Ukraine, even if that option were available. That would amount to conceding that much of the country is falling away from Russian influence. It’s more likely that Moscow will try to “punish” Ukraine for its ingratitude by creating a situation in which it is effectively divided and unable to function as a coherent unit, except on Moscow’s terms.

Quite a good prediction, if I say so myself.

That said, I have been impressed that Russia has moved so explicitly or even crudely to establish some new realities on the ground in and around Crimea.

The key to understanding Russian policy in the former Soviet Union is found in an interview Vladimir Putin gave back in 2003. Asked what his foreign policy was, he said something to the effect of "I aim to keep what's ours."

So much said, in so few words. All hail technique.

Thus, for example, what Russia sees as 'its' might include:

  • any territories ever conquered by the Tsars or Stalin (including eg the three small Baltic republics, large chunks of Poland and Finland etc)
  • any territories that belonged to the USSR
  • any territories that belonged to the Russian SSR
  • any territories where Russian influence 'naturally' belongs
  • anywhere where non-trivial numbers of Russian citizens find themselves outside Russia's current borders (hence the busy policy of handing out Russian passports to Russian-speakers or others showing due fealty to Moscow, eg in Georgia/Abkhazia and now in Ukraine)

The Putinist point, of course, is never to define precisely what Russia sees as 'its'. In Crimea and other parts of Ukraine now a combination of arguments is being deployed to suit different audiences. But the overall result is clear: to cut Ukraine down to size and make the country work only on Russia's terms.

Faced with this openly expansionist and impressively direct policy, Western leaders are trying to find something meaningful by way of reply. Here is what President Obama is said by the White House to have said to President Putin in their long telephone conversation yesterday:

President Obama made clear that Russia’s continued violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity would negatively impact Russia’s standing in the international community. In the coming hours and days, the United States will urgently consult with allies and partners in the UN Security Council, the North Atlantic Council, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and with the signatories of the Budapest Memorandum. The United States will suspend upcoming participation in preparatory meetings for the G-8. Going forward, Russia’s continued violation of international law will lead to greater political and economic isolation.

The basic problem with this sort of high-profile 'personal' diplomacy is that it needs to be balanced to be credible. I suspect that if Obama walked out of the Oval Office and was tasked to write down all he knows about Ukraine he would struggle to fill more than a couple of pages. Putin by contrast could write a short book about it. 

See the Russian acount of this conversation. Full of sharp specifics:

In response to Barack Obama's concern about the possible use of Russia's Armed Forces on Ukraine's territory, Vladimir Putin called attention to the provocative, criminal actions of the ultra-right elements who are in essence being encouraged by the current government in Kiev. The Russian President accented the very real threats to the lives and health of Russian citizens and numerous compatriots who are currently on Ukraine's territory. Vladimir Putin underscored that, in case of the further spread of violence in the eastern regions of Ukraine and the Crimea, Russia reserves the right to defend its interests and those of the Russian-speaking population living there.

So Putin is unlikely to take seriously much of what Obama says on the subject: he may be the US President, but what does he actually know or (more importantly) care about Ukraine and Russia or indeed central Europe? Not much?

Over at Brian Barder there is an interesting e-discussion emerging between some senior former UK diplomats who really know the region. I have chipped in, as has Roland Smith (previously Ambassador to Kiev) and Sir Rodric Braithwaite, one of the UK's very top experts in this area who was in Moscow when the USSR collapsed. Check it out.

My concluding thought there (and here) with added FCO in-joke:

I suspect that in years to come this flailing by Putin will be seen as a colossal Russian blunder that wrecked the credibility of Moscow’s Eurasian Economic Union initiative (which CIS country will want to be subject to the sort of bullying Ukraine is now getting)? Plus Putin seems to be making a striking mistake in alienating Ukrainian speakers who are being treated as traitors and ‘fascists’ simply for wanting to become more European. Ukraine may come to signal the beginning of Russia’s own eventual disintegration into smaller units.

Bottom line (Lyne?)? Russia seems to define its ‘interests’ under current management by insisting that you must be crushed in a hug of Russian affection until you can scarcely breathe, and if you ask for some fresh air you’re being hateful.

That sort of policy is about as unsuited to the emerging modern world of easy-going e-pluralism as can be imagined. It will fail. But how many people including Russians themselves will die or suffer as it lumbers around before it crashes?

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Professional Writing with Style and Impact

7th February 2014

Some of you may be wondering how to improve your written work. It's either too long or too dense or not persuasive or just somehow too clunky and unengaging.

Help is at hand. You can sign up with my new Guardian Masterclass for @guardianclasses: Professional Writing with Impact

Course description

Concentrating on the psychology and technique of powerful professional writing, this highly practical one-day course gives you the opportunity to develop and test new writing skills. Topics covered include: 

  • How to make your writing a conversation with the reader
  • Layout and structure – what draws a reader in, what turns a reader off
  • Tone - how to tune your writing to your readers
  • Skilful use of grammar and punctuation
  • Clarity - keeping facts, analysis and recommendations separate
  • Making work readable - rooting out clichés, jargon and weak vocabulary
  • Less is more – the art of tough-love editing

This course is for you if…

You want to improve your skills in any form of internal or external business and professional writing, including press releases, reports and presentations. The course features professional writing in English, but the techniques and insights for effective written work apply to many other languages

NB there will be some exercises to accomplish and a stern teacher scrutinising your prep.

But it will be worth it.

Dare you miss this special learning experience?

No, thought not.

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Public Speaking + Interpreters

5th February 2014

A few days ago I posted this piece from Diplomatic Courier about the hopeless public speaking performance by the French and German Foreign Ministers in Sarajevo in 1997 (emphasis added):

Where did the two countries' diplomats organizing this event get things wrong?

Basically, neither the Ministers’ respective offices nor their Embassies in Sarajevo had devised a formula to make sure the event would work as an event. I suspect that most of the clever effort before their visit had been devoted to crafting the words of the speech, ignoring the fact that what makes a speech successful is (of course) the words themselves but also the way in which they are delivered to the audience. Thus an audience that (perhaps for good practical reasons) is standing up needs a short, punchy speech; an audience sitting down is more comfortable and can cope with something longer and more thoughtful.

This applies all the more so if consecutive interpreting has to be used for a standing audience. A ten-minute speech by the Minister becomes a twenty-minute speech when delivered through an interpreter. This is a long time for people to stand and listen and try to absorb the words, when for precisely half the time they do not know what is being said.

It is much better to format the speech so that the speaker’s words are translated sentence by sentence by the interpreter. This creates a direct sense of conversation with the audience. It keeps their minds engaged on the speaker, not on the discomfort of standing to listen.

If (as on this occasion) the politics of the event require two speakers, both using consecutive interpreting, a way has to be found to coordinate the two speeches to keep them short, sharp and accessible.

Perhaps in fact only one speech is needed, with the two speakers taking it in turns to deliver different sections of it. Something like this will have novelty value, and in itself will symbolise political cooperation and high-level mutual trust. Plus the very way the speech is delivered is more likely to keep the audience interested and alert.

However, that sort of thing requires a lot of extra work, plus a sophistication and self-awareness that typically escape the high chancelleries of today's Europe...


The wonderful Media Officer at the British Embassy in Warsaw, Malgorzata Smierzycka, reminds me of my speech to the Last Night of the Proms event in Krakow in 2007.

This is a jolly annual gala occasion where Krakow Poles gather en masse lustily to sing Land of Hope and Glory and wave Union Flags and generally have a heady Britophilic experience. Tradition has it that the UK Ambassador to Warsaw joins the occasion and addresses the throng before it all starts.

My Polish is adequate for many reading purposes but pretty rotten and trending towards zero for extempore speaking, especially when people might be listening. Hence I felt that I needed an interpreter. But how best to do this to achieve success on the night in front of a packed concert hall? Hmm...

The obvious easy safe idea is to speak in English and get someone smart like Malgorzata to translate into Polish.

So, let's do the unobvious idea instead.

Malgorzata and I duly ascend the stage. I apologise for my lack of Polish and tell them (in English) that alas for such a distinguished occasion I'll need to use an interpreter.

Then (long pause) I give my prepared speech, reading it out sentence-by-sentence but in Polish. And Malgorzata translates into English.

Wild acclaim. It then does not matter (much) what I say, or how strangled my Polish pronunciation is. The sheer amusement of watching this zany duo perform this speech interpreted 'back to front' hooks the audience and achieves the key result, namely everyone having a good time and feeling warm and fuzzy about UK/Polish relations.

The very best public speaking and speechwriting? Sign up NOW.



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Slippery Slopes, Boiled Frogs

5th February 2014

Here is my latest piece for PunditWire on the subject of Slippery Slopes. With added Quagmires and Boiled Frogs:

Shock! The German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has floated the idea that the rise of so-called ‘Eurosceptic’ political parties in Europe could lead to WAR. He argued this week that the centenary of the First World War should serve as a reminder of the dangers of a lack of European co-operation: “these dangers have to be forever banned”.

Welcome to Slippery Slopes, Quagmires, Thinly-ended Wedges and Boiling Frogs.

We all use metaphors to make a point. Speechwriters adore a good metaphor: get the right one and the speaker sounds wise, folksy, sassy and astute all in one go.

The trouble with such metaphors is that they capture your imagination but deaden your brain. Take the idea of the ‘slippery slope’. It conveys the idea that once you have gone beyond a certain point and started to slide downwards, there’s no way to stop until you crash at the bottom. There’s no safe and maybe better perch along the slide, or any way to control your slide. You lose control.

This metaphor gives a phony sense of immediate inexorable dangerous momentum which in fact may not be there. Pick another popular metaphor. If you enter a swamp (or the more fashionable ‘quagmire’) and start to get stuck, you are not doomed to stagger on into the middle and sink without trace. You may well make it back to the side safely, albeit malodorously and unhappily.

Likewise the ‘thin end of the wedge’ metaphor. Does it mean that by accepting A you logically have to accept B and C and so on? Or rather that if you accept A it is very likely (or quite likely, or more likely than not) that in practice you’ll end up getting B and C and so on, even if these results in logic and in policy terms can be distinguished?

... Herr Steinmeier too was playing on these ideas when he warned against Eurosceptics. What exactly was his argument here?

That any step back from further European cooperation makes a new war more likely or even certain? That reducing European cooperation may involve a small risk of a terrible thing, and that is a risk not worth taking? That Germany has deep in its soul a horrendous warlike impulse and that only the European Union as it is can tie Germany down safely (“unleash us at your peril!)?

Who knows? I suspect that he did not care. He was just throwing out a remote but horrible possibility (war in Europe once again) and slyly suggesting (a) that people like him who believe in the European Union as it is are the only credible defence against that happening, and (b) that anyone who disagrees with him must be ipso facto ‘dangerous’...

Read the whole thing.

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RBS? Meet Grammar

30th January 2014

I am locked in battle with the Royal Bank of Scotland over a footling issue with a credit-card. They sent me a card dated Jan 2014 that expires in Feb 2014. Shocking!

Their Customer Service people have sent a long letter apologising for the letter and offering some small compensation for the inconvenience I have had in trying to sort out the muddle. Fair enough.

But this letter itself has prompted a new complaint, as it contained three fatuous spelling errors (including my own address) and a couple of dozen punctuation/grammar errors. The letter was very hard to read as a result. So let's see how they respond to that.

I recently gave a Drafting session at the FCO. Even though it was obvious that their work would benefit from some sharp editing, there was a subtle sense among some of the participants that 'old-school' top-end FCO drafting was not what was required these days, and might even be deemed to be elitist. Still, other Foreign Ministries seem keen on learning from me how to write tip-top English (including proof-reading, punctuation and so on).

As I have had said before, it's not that our civilisation faces a rising tide of young people working their way up through the ranks who don't write well. Rather the problem is that the very idea of writing well is suspect. Hey, it's just your opinion that this way of writing that sentence is 'better' than mine.

So when Clifford Chance fret about Oxbridge bias and run a 'CV-blind' approach to recruiting, what do they think is going to happen?

Staff conducting the interviews are no longer given any information about which university candidates attended, or whether they come from state or independent schools...

In addition, half the posts on its vacation programmes (offering placements in the spring and summer to existing students) are reserved for those who come through an “Intelligent Aid” scheme, where candidates write a 250 to 500-word essay on a topic important to the firm and then do a presentation on it. Again, the candidate’s university background is not revealed.

They might get a rather wider spread of recruits than they have had previously. Fair enough. But this sort of testing naturally favours candidates from educational backgrounds where accurate writing and expression have been prioritised. Dare one suggest that Oxbridge and public school candidates will tend to do well here too?

It's simple. Either you have learned to write with accuracy and precision, using the full range of punctuation to say exactly what needs to be said and no more. Or you have not. So you scatter ideas like confetti across a page, dividing them with streams of commas in the hope that the reader will be willing to battle through the chaos to extract the meaning.

I am talking to Guardian Masterclasses about running a session on Professional Writing. So you soon may be able to sign up to that magnificent opportunity to improve your style.

Update: Via the Browser, try this long but tough look at what is and isn't poor use of the passive form in English grammar. Some surprising and strong examples of people getting this quite wrong - and drawing very odd conclusions.

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More on Morality and John Galt

30th January 2014

Here's the next part of my e-discussion with Frances Coppola on Atlas Shrugged and what it all means:

CC             In Atlas Shrugged Dagny’s shooting of Rusty is, I agree, given a curious and opaque justification: “…a man who wanted to exist without the responsibility of consciousness”. It seems to me to make more sense as “…a man who wanted to exist without the consciousness of responsibility”!

I don’t see the shooting as morally outlandish: Rusty was an armed guard protecting a facility within which John Galt was being tortured. Dagny several times offered him a way to save himself. Plus Rusty sought to avoid responsibility with the most morally vile lines possible: “I’m only a little fellow! I’m only obeying orders! It’s not up to me!”

Nor is this one shooting under extreme circumstances evidence that the John Galt project necessarily involves ‘compulsion’. Jesus in a flash of passion uses the whip to drive moneylenders from the temple? Is Christianity brutally flawed?

You argue that human beings are not perfect: “There is no reason whatsoever to suppose that a workers’ revolution would inevitably lead to a dictatorship but a revolution of the ‘men of mind’ would not.”  It does not matter whether workers or mind-men or anyone else is leading a revolution: what matters is what they believe, and how they plan to rule.

In our times so-called workers’ revolutions led by Marxist-style Leftists have been uniquely catastrophic because the people who prevailed despised individualism, denied the very idea of moral limits and exalted the collective. The Galt philosophy is the opposite in every practical respect...

Frances does not invariably agree.

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That Sarajevo Franco-German Speech Disaster In Full

30th January 2014

I have opened a new writing flank with the fine US diplomatic publication Diplomatic Courier.

Here is my first piece. It tells the tragic tale of the Franco-German speech disaster in Sarajevo in 1997, beginning as it mesans to continue:

All happy speeches are alike. All unhappy speeches are different in their own particular way...

The horrible fiasco then unfolds:

... Védrine and his team have given no proper thought to how best to deliver his speech to such a big audience that is standing up and mainly does not understand French. He delivers his speech in dull and wordy long paragraphs, leaving the interpreter a tricky job in remembering and conveying in Bosnian everything he has said in equally dull and wordy long paragraphs.

His speech meanders on. After a while people at the back of the room not unreasonably conclude that Védrine and the interpreter are saying nothing to interest them, and they start chatting quietly among themselves.

This creates a disconcerting effect across the audience as a whole. Those standing immediately in front of the two speakers have no choice but to pretend to listen politely. More and more people at the back of the room decide to ignore the speaker completely and start talking. Those in the middle start to feel uncomfortable. As does Herr Kinkel, watching in dismay as the proud European message of his distinguished colleague is ignored by a small but steadily growing part of the audience.

After about 20 minutes of platitudes Védrine’s speech ends, to fitful applause. Herr Kinkel takes over. Unfortunately for him, his speech too has been written to be delivered in lengthy passages in German followed by lengthy passages in Bosnian spoken by the interpreter. This way of handling consecutive translation for a speech dooms from the start any hope of creating a sense of conversation between speaker and audience.

By now the massed Bosnians at the back of the room have given up on the occasion and are talking openly among themselves. Herr Kinkel gets visibly angry at this open Balkan disrespect for Modern Europe. He raises his voice to try to bring everyone to listen to him.

Bosnians are made of stern stuff and have long memories of Nazi atrocities in World War Two. They tend to be unimpressed when Germans talk loudly at them. The louder Herr Kinkel talks, the louder the Bosnians talk.

A ghastly sonic arms race ensues. Herr Kinkel is determined to drown out the insolent Bosnians. The bored Bosnians are no less keen to drown out that German man at the other end of the room spoiling the reception by making such an annoying noise.

My subsequent reporting telegram to London recorded this amazing scene:

It also is striking how diplomatically ineffective our main European partners seem here. The Védrine/Kinkel visit here last week seemed to sum things up, in presentational terms at least. At the large Holiday Inn reception for the visitors with a top-level turnout of Bosnian, Serb, and Croat leaders, Védrine’s tame speech was the normal Dayton platitudes. Kinkel delivered an energetic address on the general lines of ‘We have done a lot for you! You shall be grateful! And cooperate!’

Stirring stuff, but not enough to enthuse the Bosnian audience, many of whom rudely carried on talking among themselves while it was delivered.

All in all, a grimly instructive diplomatic fiasco...

Read the whole thing.

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The Morality of John Galt

20th January 2014

And here is a first part of an online discussion I'm having with Frances Coppola about The Morality of Atlas Shrugged:

CC            OK, now we start to disagree! There are of course miserable, over-written passages. But let’s also praise the wonderful writing and insight that are beyond remarkable for someone who did not have English as a native tongue. (An elderly professor of literature saw them on top of a pile in a junk yard, dismantling the carcass of an automobile…”A young man of your position ought to spend his time in libraries absorbing the culture of the world.” “What do you think I’m doing?” asked Francisco.)

More importantly, what is the “dictatorship of the men of mind’? All the various clever industrialists in Atlas Shrugs want to do is to sell their products in a tough competitive marketplace, testing their ideas and inventions against their own skill and wider scientific reality.

That emphasis on free choice and a battle of wits is the exact opposite of any ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ (which in practice is the dictatorship of insecure middle-class tyrants). They are thwarted at every turn by corrupt rivals and officials who manipulate the state’s power to steal their work, diminish competition and compel stupid deals.

Things of course decline. John Galt (written as a curiously blank character in many ways) suggests to them that they withdraw their ingenuity so that this decadent society takes responsibility for its own actions. I don’t see that as narcissistic or even objectionable. It’s a healthy exercise in teaching dim or greedy people to think hard about cause and effect.


We do indeed disagree! Plot construction and character delineation, which are my main criticisms of her writing, are not determined by language.

If you consider Rand as a Russian writer, she is not of the calibre of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. If you consider her as an American writer, she is not of the calibre of Steinbeck or Hemingway.  As a female writer, she is not of the calibre of Lessing or Murdoch. And as a political writer she is not of the calibre of Orwell.

But I acknowledge that judgements of literary merit are to some extent a matter of personal taste. I don’t consider her to be a good writer. You do.

The desire of the “men of mind” to control the rewards they receive for their labour. Whether that reward comes as monetary reward or in some non-monetary form, such as kudos, is immaterial. It is essentially the same desire, and the means that they use to achieve their desire are essentially the same too.

If there is one criticism I would level at Ayn Rand’s notion of “trade”, it is that it is not free. Free trade includes the possibility of receiving nothing at all for your ideas or your labour, or even for receiving a negative return. And free trade is impeded by the creation of monopolies and cartels.

In Rand’s novel, John Galt manipulates the market by creating a cartel to restrict supply of ideas. By doing that he creates a supply-side shock so severe that it destroys the political system. He then takes over the government and announces that he will “reorganize the world” according to his beliefs.  In effect, he creates a revolution.

This is no different from the Marxist notion that a workers’ revolution will bring down the capitalist system and set up a new one that gives them the power to control the returns they receive for their labour. Even the weapons they use are the same: the principal weapon of the working class struggle is the strike; John Galt organizes a “strike” of the men of mind.

And the end result would be the same too. John Galt and the government bureaucrats and workers’ representatives he so despises are just different breeds of pig.

What? John Galt just another greedy pig? Come off it.

Next instalment soon, I hope.

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20th January 2014

My latest piece at Telegraph Blogs - on state eavesdropping:

What safeguards might we want within this wide range of different activities so that the government does all these things reasonably but does not overstep the mark in using information technologies improperly against its own citizens? Something like this:

• Powerful government computers that quietly search the world's data-oceans looking for suspicious patterns, but with specific high-level authorisations needed to track actual individuals within our own country or overseas

• Other technical safeguards so set off alarm bells if operators appear to be using data-searches improperly • A tight legal and regulatory framework emphasising human rights and limits on state power

• People running the systems are told to operate to the highest standards of professional ethics – when in doubt they should protect the citizens’ privacy. Operators and supervisors alike are vetted to make sure that only people with unblemished records of professional and personal integrity are used

• All this takes place within a wider framework of regulatory supervision by trusted outsiders, including elected parliamentarians and independent judges • Regular audits and spot-checks to make sure that everything is being done properly

• Rigorous arrangements for sharing intelligence data with close allies, with built-in safeguards for UK citizens.

In short, something closely resembling the current British intelligence-gathering system.

Despite the wailing against this system by Snowden/Assange fans and others from Left and Right alike who rail against the supposedly oppressive status quo, no one has come up with anything seriously better. That’s because there probably isn’t anything seriously better that combines top-end confidentiality, honourable professional ethics, reasonable but searching external cross-checking, fair democratic and judicial supervision, and (last but not least) technical robustness aimed against hostile sabotage, inadvertent leaks or deliberate Snowden-type betrayal

I ended on an ambiguous, dark note:

Whether we like it or not (and often we do), we are getting ever more astonishingly accurate authentication links between people and machines. It soon will be technically impossible to stay "anonymous". Data we emit as people as we do anything other than sit alone starving in a cave will be collected and stored and processed as part of things working normally. That data will throw up patterns of behaviour that can be used for both good and malign purposes, by both government agencies and private organisations.

These trends may lead to a creepy technical or even moral convergence between different government systems. Democracies and autocracies alike will rely on technology that allows the state to monitor citizens, but also citizens to monitor citizens, and citizens to monitor the state.

Perhaps citizens of the future will be baffled by the fact that anyone was surprised by Snowden’s revelations: watching everyone and everything and being watched all the time by everyone and everything is the source of our freedom and our security. Information Macht Frei.

What is really staggering about this sort of debate is that it is barely possible to define ways of describing what is happening that permits a sane discussion about it. We tend to think about information as a 'thing' that can be protected. But in fact it's a flow of digital data-packets that surge to and fro around the world's computer circuits and drive everything that makes human life on the planet now function. And the ways in which data can be created and monitored keep changing as computers get faster and cheaper. 

Look at another Telegraph Blogs piece that has just gone up, urging estate agents to use IT properly:

The blame lies with estate agents – an industry paid huge sums to sell houses, but who relentlessly forego any attempt at earning their pennies by actually understanding the customer. Given the data they hold it should be far and away a smoother, more streamlined service. They know the buyers’ budget; preferred areas; number of bedrooms needed; style of house; whether they want a garden; the preferred proximity to the station; Christ, they should know whether you want a catflap…

But all this is ignored in lieu of just a single point of differentiation: price.

In other words, hurrah for even more 'surveillance' of us and our preferences by private companies. The idea of 'mass customisation' (ie more and more products designed for specific consumers) is terrific in principle - less waste, better choice, more creativity. But it turns on more and more of our own preferences being fine-tuned and generally available.

This website makes some libertarian-lite pretensions. But there is no prospect of the state slimming down any time soon. So an important debate emerges: we have extensive democratic checks and balances over what the state does with all the data it gathers - what 'democratic' control do we have over what data private businesses gather? Yes, there is the core control that comes from being a customer or not, and ticking the box that says 'Your data may be shared' or not ticking it. But how real is that, when the very fact of going on that site is strewing data about ourselves and our current location far and wide? The whole idea of distinguishing private from public data seems to me to be evaporating in important respects.

Final thought. Many small island-states have done well as 'offshore' tax havens. That seems to be getting squeezed by the powerful economies bent on extracting more tax. What if these places become offshore data-protection zones instead, offering robust legal protection against data-snooping?

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What on Earth is Happening?

6th January 2014

One of the nicer things about the New Year is a tendency for people to step back and look at the Big Picture.

Here is a fine example from Jonathan Capehart at the Washington Post. He takes three game-changing trends: US energy independence, 3D-printing, and the rise of global scepticism about public institutions.

Take 3D-printing:

With 3-D printing, “[W]e could foresee a world that the cost of producing a car would be more or less the same if it happens in Detroit, if it happens in Stuttgart, if it happens in Mexico,” Pardinas said. “What would that mean for the concept of industrial outsourcing?

“We have to find a big drawer in our mental desks and put all the cliches that explain the world of the past and try to find new ones to explain what’s going on,” he continued. “We foresaw or we were comfortable in a world where China was the hub of industrial manufacturing, but with 3-D printing, any part of the world could become a new hub of industrial manufacturing.”

Blimey. Just think about that. Distances collapse again.

Read the whole thing.

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Happy New Year

6th January 2014

Long time no blog. Family, Christmas, weather, website upgrades, more weather. the usual.

Here I am in my most recent DIPLOMAT piece, on East v West and the benefits or otherwise of the Asian Model of Development:

For most of the past 100 years or so, it looked as if the modern ‘Western’ model of democracy was the best way ever invented to do things. The act of voting required public debate and participation by men and women equally. This required free media. The rule of law required honest judges and the separation of powers. Universal franchise incentivised the powerful to agree welfare arrangements for the less powerful. And all these things combined to allow people and businesses to keep and invest the results of their work. This unleashed innovation to create wealth at a staggering pace, including in Asia, where first Japan then South Korea showed how modern pluralism and market forces could achieve miraculous results.

Hence the struggle for ideas and influence that dominated the twentieth century, nowhere more than in Asia, where the world’s main population growth was occurring and European colonial rule was ending. Which model should prevail? Something drawing strongly on Western pluralism but with its own forms and priorities (as in India, by far the world’s largest democracy)? Or un-Western enforced collectivism with echoes of Soviet-style oppression adapted to local conditions (China)? Did either of these ways of organising society necessarily make more sense in Asian conditions? Did it make sense to talk of ‘Asian’ values shared across such a vast area?

Some Asian leaders thought that it did. Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore and Mahathir Mohammad of Malaysia claimed that Asian culture had distinct features: family ties, social harmony, collective welfare, and respect for authority. This (they argued) contrasted with the West’s weaker family ties, strong individualism, freedom of choice, less respect for authority or even open dissent. Asian cultural norms required strong state mechanisms stressing social consensus and the authority of firm leadership: the economic and welfare results for the mass of people could be no less impressive than anything achieved in the West...

Last year I visited Vietnam for the first time. It’s still run by a steely communist party that stands tough for Vietnam’s independence, but it’s a communist party that praises free enterprise and presides over feverish hard work and entrepreneurship. The bustling streets of Hanoi were as far as you can get from the smug, bureaucratic, doomed ‘European social model’. Vietnam appears to operate according to one precept that everyone understands: ‘No work? No food!’

Against all this, we Westerners might sniff that insofar as China and other Asian countries are surging ahead it is because they have abandoned the worst features of traditional Asian collectivism, and instead are adopting policies associated with historic Western freedoms: respect for private property, honest courts, rewards for individual effort, growing transparency and improved (or at least improving) human rights. And by the way, we Westerners have invented the Internet. Take that, Asian autocrats!

Conclusion? One familiar to readers here:

All in all, Asia is becoming more democratic, or at least notably more pluralist. But it’s a slow process with twists and turns. We Westerners pride ourselves in our political freedoms, forgetting just how many centuries it took to achieve them. Switzerland is usually seen as a country with top-end democratic traditions, yet it was only in 1971 that women won the right to vote in federal elections, while women could not vote in some local areas for a further 20 years after that.

As we in the UK see in our current battles over Scottish independence, privacy, freedom of the press, the UK’s European Union membership and ever-more intrusive state controls over everyday life, the nature of our own cherished democracy is changing fast – and not for the better.

Perhaps we all are being swept along in a vast new global trend driven by mass access to new technology. Perhaps some sort of messy global average pluralism is emerging, where the power of the state and the power of the masses reach an uneasy stalemate.

Perhaps people in the Western world are seeing their freedoms edge down, just as across Asia, Africa and the Middle East people are enjoying more power vis-à-vis the state?

Maybe not such a Happy New Year. Wait! At least the Guardian seems to agree with me. Sort of:

The truth is that the arrogant, centralised state is as much of a problem as the out-of-control market, and the dominion of one is symbiotically related to the tyranny of the other. From that, all else follows. The future politics of the left will either be pluralist, localist and libertarian, or it will shrivel.

One can but hope.

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Apartheid Lives

16th December 2013

The heroic achievement of Nelson Mandela was to end apartheid's evil racial legal categorisations and associated injustice in South Africa, right?

Alas not:

The idea of defining and rewarding citizens by race continued. The argument was that drastic measures were needed to help the mass of people who had lost out under apartheid to catch up.

This required wholesale ‘positive discrimination’ based on apartheid’s own categories, such as the Black (sic) Economic Empowerment Act (2003):

"Black people" is a generic term which means Black Africans, Coloureds and Indians.

If South Africa’s firms do not now discriminate on the basis of skin colour as required by such laws, the state imposes brutish penalties:

[M]aximum fines for any failure to meet specified racial targets will start, for a first contravention, either at R1.5m or 2% of annual turnover, whichever amount is the greater. For a fifth similar contravention within three years, maximum fines will be either R2.7m or 10% of annual turnover, whichever is the larger

What this means in practice is a corrupt bureaucracy that allows the ANC and SA Communist Party ruling elites at every level to reward their friends.

Worse even than that, it also means that in South Africa the colour of your skin is by law far more important than mere human merit. Astute South African intellectual R W Johnson points out that both the former liberal opposition party in South Africa and the Communist tendency have succumbed to this cynicism:

In contemporary South Africa skin colour trumps merit just as it did under apartheid. This dissociation of merit from achievement has catastrophic effects … in a country that is part of an international world, which has to compete with multiple rivals, such a policy is virtually suicidal.

Indeed. In 2012 as foreign investment elsewhere in Africa boomed, South Africa attracted a pitiful $4.6 billion, 24 percent down on the previous year. Any sane foreign investor interested in Africa will take one look at this edifice of folly, realise that a new business is compelled by law to employ people who may be incompetent, and go somewhere else.

And, of course, we have echoes of this perversity here in the UK too via all those Ethnic Diversity Questionnaires...

My latest piece for Commentator. Read the whole thing.

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Mediation Winners

13th December 2013

As long-standing readers know, when I left the FCO back in 2007 I qualified as a professional Mediator and had ideas about developing that line of work.

It turned out not to be easy to do that if one lived well away from a seething centre of serious disputes such as London. So with other colleagues I set up The Ambassador Partnership instead, where we use mediation and negotiation skills to solve significant commercial problems of different shapes and sizes and deliver top-end corporate diplomacy technique masterclasses, now in partnership with The Guardian.

Still, that mediation skills training from 2007/2008 went deep. Last week to test it out I attended a major Mediation Competition organised by ADR Group, a top UK and European mediation organisation. It took place at St Hugh's College, Oxford. Scores of mediators took part.

The format was interesting. There were three rounds. Everyone was divided into teams of three (say A+B+C). In two rounds A+B or A+C were teamed parties in a mini-mediation. In a third round A joined someone from another group as a co-mediator. So everyone had the chance to be a mediator once and be a disputing party twice. Each roleplay was assessed by professional experts and marks awarded for specific techniques (active listening and careful questioning; reflecting and reframing; use of silence etc).

Mighty glittering trophies the size of undernourished eggcups were awarded to the overall winners in different categories.

Suffice to say that organising all this on the scale needed for so many participants (and getting each person exactly the right roleplay role-sheet in the right room at the right time) was a fiendishly complicated exercise. And the ADR Group team did it 100%.

In the roleplay where I was a co-mediator, it turned out that my partner was Lori Pinkerton-Rolet of Park Grove Design (we had not met before). We had a mediation scenario where an Indian business family had had a serious falling-out and a lot of personal and business matters were tangled up unhappily.

In the relatively short time available we could not bring them fully to resolve all their differences, but we were well down the way to achieving that. The assessors were delighted with our subtle tag-team technique and style ("Phenomenal - one of the best such examples I have ever seen").

Imagine our surprise (and delight) when Lori was named Best Individual Mediator for the whole competition and I was runner-up. Plus we both won Team trophies as well. Glory!

So, anyone interested in having Lori and I act as a superb co-mediation team to help sort even the most miserable and protracted problems of all shapes and sizes need only get in touch.

You really can't afford not to do so. Jaw-jaw better than war-war, and all that.



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Attacked from Moscow!

11th December 2013

I have been sent this noteworthy message (expletives deleted):




IP address:

My modest grasp of technology lets me look up IP addresses on the Internet. And this is what we find:

IP address is numbered This IP address is affiliated with Russian Federation, and active in Moscow, Moscow City. IP Country code is RU. ISP of this address is "AKADO-Stolitsa JSC", organization is "AKADO-Stolitsa JSC". IP address longitude is 37.615601 and latitude is 55.752201

When you check out those coordinates, the originating address is inside the Kremlin itself. The Internet Service Provider seems to be AKADO Stolitsa JSC:

JSC «AKADO - Stolitsa» is one of the Moscow’s leading providers of communications solutions and services operating since 1995. AKADO is a part of AKADO Group. AKADO activities include broadband internet services, digital TV services with over 180 channels, High Definition Television (HDTV), digital telephony and digital radio services. AKADO is the largest Double Play operator in Moscow, and the first provider to launch HDTV services on its whole network.

Good value for money, Russian taxpayers!

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South Africa and Mandela

10th December 2013

I have written three pieces about South Africa, Nelson Mandela and all that.

Two for the Commentator. The first here:

South Africa’s peaceful transition to democracy was indeed a miracle that captured the imagination of people all over the world.

Fine, soaring sentiments. And quite untrue.

Between 1985 and 1996 deaths from political violence in South Africa exceeded 20,000, with a large number taking place in the KwaZulu/Natal area. In Poland by contrast deaths from political violence of different shapes and sizes during the Solidarity period and through to the first free elections were very rare, to the point where individual killings of pro-democracy activists such as Father Popieluszko were a major mobilising event.

That small death toll did not make the Polish transition from communism ‘peaceful’. During the Martial Law period thousands were beaten or tortured or imprisoned or harassed or otherwise brutalised. From the outside it probably looked relatively calm and restrained. For Poles at the receiving end of this nationwide oppression it did not feel that way.

The point is that the world sees South Africa as a ‘peaceful’ transition only because not many pale-skinned people were killed. The fact that tens of thousands of dark-skinned people died in a disgusting civil war between Mandela’s African National Congress plus its Communist Party ally with every other African political tendency across the political spectrum is too ghastly to contemplate. So we don’t contemplate it...

Mandela with his lofty Xhosa royal status and businesslike strict missionary education started off opposing these laws on the grounds of basic unfairness. He later became part of a much more virulent ‘anti-imperialist’ Marxist-led movement. The tension within the ANC/SACP tradition of revolutionary ‘the worse the better’ violence and a much more cautious, even forgiving approach came to a head as apartheid declined.

In the 1980s the ANC launched a calamitous campaign of township murders of political enemies led by teenagers or even children that helped create the generation responsible for the sky-high murder rates across South Africa we now see today.

Mandela in prison managed to avoid being associated with that madness and on his release worked in a spirit of steely magnanimity with F W De Klerk to preside over the change to a more or less democratic order based on simple one-person-one-vote fairness.

Given what had happened in South Africa and the wider region over the previous decades, this was an unambiguously huge political and moral achievement. The world is right to praise it and the man who symbolised it.

I then give my own story of meeting Mandela, first publicly recorded here.

So we sat and waited. I, lowly First Sec Pretoria, a very small ant crawling on the vast dunghill of world history, had the most famous person in the world and a couple of his people, all to myself!

We talked mainly about the ghastly violence in KwaZulu, where ANC/SACP members and Inkatha supporters of Zulu leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi were killing each other in large numbers.

At one point Mandela sharply said "Would you people support Buthelezi as President?"

I replied, "If he wins a free and fair election of all South Africans, why not?"

There was a long awkward silence.

Then one of Mandela's people spoke through gritted teeth: "Good answer!"

The second Commentator piece is here. It looks closely at the 1985 Thatcher letter to P W Botha from the point of view of diplomatic technique, and finds much to admire:

The central point of diplomatic technique here is that in the 1980s the UK had influence in South Africa because we refused to follow the madding crowd and impose sanctions. That meant that we were able to keep these highest level channels of private dialogue open with the Afrikaner leadership, and indeed with the ANC/SACP leadership exiled in Lusaka, keen to hear what we were saying to Botha and our impressions of what Pretoria was thinking.

Plus this way of spelling out British concerns privately, subtly and frankly helped our key messages hit the target: P W Botha would ignore letters from international leaders who had publicly thrown their support behind the Soviet-backed ANC/SACP.

That said, private top-level diplomatic messages have to be drafted especially well – they are serious business. This Thatcher one stands as a supreme example of the art, achieving a warm personal tone while explaining in a sophisticated, businesslike and even rather blunt way that standing still is going to do no-one any good.

Language that openly acknowledges the other side’s true concerns and suspicions (“this is the most difficult since it involves an outsider presuming to trespass on your affairs”) is always disarmingly effective.

Fine. But did it work to the point of getting Mandela out of prison? No. Of course not.

P W Botha was ready to end laws crudely discriminating between ‘whites’ and ‘blacks’, but he had no plan for negotiating seriously with the African majority to move to a new constitutional dispensation.

Margaret Thatcher knew that this was the core dilemma. She also knew that the Afrikaners would do best if they negotiated a new constitutional order from a position of strength. Her letter and other such messages were all about trying to get P W Botha to grasp that – and then act on it. An effort well worth making.

Finally, my piece today for Telegraph Blogs looks at the whole sweep of Western engagement with the apartheid regime and concludes that (alas) we did not really have a clear plan:

The Berlin Wall came down in late 1989. Soviet-style communism was discredited. Within a few weeks South African President F W De Klerk summarily unbanned the ANC and all other banned organisations, setting in motion a negotiated transfer to some sort of majoritarian system. The National Party led by De Klerk proved to be startlingly inept at negotiating with the ANC and its artful communists, and achieved a far less creative and pluralistic settlement than was desirable. At its heart was a cynical deal with the major corporations: in return for substantively Africanising their operations (ie giving top jobs to ANC loyalists), life would go on much as before.

Thus in 1994 Mandela won the country’s first free elections. The Trafalgar Square demonstrators drifted away. All hail Mandela for presiding over a glorious peaceful transition to democracy! Alas not. In the years before the ANC took power some 30,000 Africans were shot or hacked to death in a dirty and unnecessary civil war that Mandela did nothing to stop, mainly between the ANC/SACP and the moderate Zulu Inkatha party.

The key thing to understand about UK and wider Western policy towards South Africa as apartheid ended over these years was that it was curiously ambiguous. Did we want pluralism in South Africa?  Did we want one man one vote – once?  Did we want democracy? Did we want Nelson Mandela to be President? Did we want the end of apartheid then not care what happened? Did we just want all those demonstrators to leave Trafalgar Square?

These options had radically different implications for South Africa’s future stability and prosperity. Yet the choices were scarcely articulated or even much discussed. This played into the ANC/SACP hands. They more or less scooped the pool, with the clumsy corrupt results now seen today.

My own feeling is that we and our Western partners should have aimed for a notably higher moral quality of outcome, pressing for voting systems that encouraged power-sharing and devolved pluralism in a strong market economy that encouraged grassroots entrepreneurship. But maybe it was not worth the effort. Why strive for a better outcome than the Afrikaners and ANC/SACP were prepared to negotiate?

It was, as it always had been, their country and their problem.

Enough of me on all this. If you want to know more about the fascinating and important story of Mandela's intriguing with Soviet-backed communism, read the peerless Rian Malan in the Spectator:

All that is clear is that Mandela’s brief infatuation with the Red faith delivered the ANC into the hands of Communist hardliners who exercised almost total control over the organization for decades thereafter. This in turn caused the Boers in Pretoria to adopt a policy of merciless reaction. 

The upshot was a bloody stalemate that endured until in 1989, when the fall of the Berlin Wall heralded the collapse of the Soviet empire. Realizing that without Soviet backing the ANC would have to abandon its dream of military victory, SA president F.W. de Klerk unbanned the liberation movements and freed Mandela. Within weeks, South Africa had resumed its unsteady quest for a happy ending.

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Ukraine: Now What?

2nd December 2013

My latest piece for Telegraph Blogs looks in (very) broad terms at Ukraine:

In 1994 the EU Ambassadors had a meeting in Moscow at which they opined on the then reforms under President Yeltsin. The Belgian Ambassador grumbled that Russia was just too big, too communist and too "Asian" to change its ways and adopt modern pluralism: “Russia will always be on the edge of Europe”. The wily German ambassador replied that this was the wrong way to look at it: “Europe will always be on the edge of Russia”.

They were both right. And once again Ukraine finds itself unhappily divided on that tense civilisational borderline.

Ukraine is part of the vast geographic flatness that stretches from the North Sea over to the Urals. For centuries Ukrainian-speakers have found themselves squeezed between Russian power to the East, and Polish or German power to the West. Ukraine had no independent existence as a state until the Soviet Union disintegrated in 1991. So whereas in Poland a national memory of independence between the World Wars helped drive resistance to Soviet communism, until 1991 no one in Ukraine had experienced anything other than rule from Moscow. [Note: as a commenter at Tel Blogs fairly points out, this last claim is not 100% true]

When the USSR dissolved, Ukraine struggled to get moving as a new state. The fact that up to 30 per cent of Ukrainians spoke Russian gave Moscow considerable weight in Ukrainian politics. Many of the smartest Ukrainians stayed in Moscow and took on Russian citizenship. At one negotiation in the early 1990s between Russia and Ukraine over the decaying Black Sea Fleet, there were more Ukrainian-speakers on the Russian side of the table than on Ukraine’s.

In the two decades since communism ended the Ukrainians have seen Poland and other former communist Slavic countries start to move ahead fast and join first Nato than the European Union.

This has given Ukrainians a new existential choice. Are they first and foremost Europeans and part of the democratic tradition to their West? Or are they rather part of a Russia-led Slav community of peoples that shares some features of European pluralism but takes its lead dutifully from Moscow? Above all, who decides?

That last question is of course the key one. Kto kogo?

Interesting generational issues are now emerging. Any Ukrainian under the age of 30 has only at best hazy youthful recollections of the Soviet Union - those under 25 have none at all. So these web-savvy young people are a lot less interested in Soviet-era iconography and adoring V Putin, wanting instead some of the hope and obvious prosperity they can detect across the border in Poland. Just as Poles are moving to the UK to find better jobs, plenty of young Ukrainians are popping over into Poland to do the same. 

The problem they face is that the EU in current mode can offer Ukraine nothing but a long shopping-list of dull if not painful reforms, and not much money to support them. That said, the Association Agreement package on offer with the associated changes in many aspects of the law to help harmonise the Ukrainian economy with EU standards gives Ukraine a chance to do far better. This fine piece by the always insightful Anders Aslund over at Foreign Policy gives a lot of gritty detail about the scale of the corruption now dragging Ukraine downwards.

Prospects? Poor.

There is no reason to think that the feisty demonstrators command a clear majority of support across Ukraine as a whole. If the current elite falls (as they richly deserve to do), a new set of oligarch-friendly leaders may well replace them with no real change. The Aslund piece warns that the Ukrainian economy and its foreign exchnage reserves are now badly depleted, so if there is no serious confidence-building reform package in sight it is unclear how long the whole sorry mess can stagger on without much more radical disruptions and upheavals.

Above all, there is not much we in the EU all can do, even if we were minded to do something which we mainly aren't.

Ukraine is just too big to be helped if it does not massively help itself. Perhaps if Russia sees the prospect of instability across Ukraine it will decide to throw its weight behind something more sensible? But for this purpose what or who is 'Russia'? The situation there is no less grim according to many economic and social indicators. The decadent KGB-oligarchocracy may just prefer to plunder the whole space into the ground?

Check out my Telegraph Blogs piece and the many deranged comments from rentanastyrussiantroll.ru and deranged UKiPpers it has prompted:

Charles Crawford - another Eton chump whose own diplomatic career was a resounding failure

Let's burn an effigy of Charles Crawford - the neocon numpty keen to dismantle democratic government in Ukraine, in favour of erecting a huge statue of Herman Van Rompouy in the centre of Kreschatik

Comrade Charles Crawford - a mindless simpleton - told to think the way his masters in Brussels tell him

What utter foolish gutless GARBAGE you prattle, Crawford. You are a spineless sack of neocon SCUM, paid to talk-up Mr Barrosso and Mr Rompouy. In better days, the heads of TRAITORS like you were chopped off and displayed on London Bridge.

Plus some rather more helpful ones about the whole business, including from some people who actually know something about Ukraine and the wider drama it represents.

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University Gender Segregation 2.0

30th November 2013

Helpful as I am, I have written a short but comprehensive guide for Universities on the issue of inviting External Speakers.

It is intended to replace the wretched rambling 44 page effort put out by Universities UK that after much huffing and puffing came down on the side of accepting non-discriminatory (sic) gender segregation at meetings if certain 'ultra orthodox religious speakers' (the preferred real-life phrase is 'extremist Muslims') demanded it.

My new version fits nicely on two sides. Here it is. Key points:  

It is normal courtesy on the part of event organisers to let the appropriate University authorities know that an outside speaker is being invited to University premises to address an audience.

If the organisers of an event with an outside speaker have any reason to think that the event concerned may create undue controversy or attract protests or negative media coverage, they should talk to the University authorities and make a suitable plan.

A speaker is a guest at a University, and guests can be expected to respect the rules laid down by their hosts. Certain speakers nonetheless may seek to impose conditions for their participation in an event. Organisers of events should accept no conditions that have the effect directly or indirectly of achieving any segregation of the audience on grounds of race, gender, appearance, belief, age or any other specious if not unlawful criterion.

(Note: these considerations need not apply if a speaker is invited by a University society that (a) has its own rules consistent with University practice, and (b) is limiting the audience to its own members who have freely accepted those rules.)

If any speaker asserts that the University’s refusal to meet such conditions is ‘discrimination’, the organisers should let the appropriate University authorities know that this issue has arisen, and inform the speaker that to accept these conditions would infringe basic University principles. The speaker can decide whether to accept University principles or decline the invitation.

When in doubt, all concerned should go for the option that allows the most freedom. No concessions should be made to organisers or speakers who seek to limit the freedom/choices of others.

Assertions that a ‘genuinely held belief’ entitles a University member to limit the choices of others at the University or eg require some form of audience segregation should be ignored on principle.

Nothing much else to be said on the subject, I think?

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Professor Ceausescu and Rector Stalin Organise the Seating

26th November 2013

The ‘Guidance’ document External Speakers in Higher Education Institutions put out by Universities UK (‘the Voice of UK Universities’) is attracting attention, and rightly so, for its proposed approach to ‘segregation’ of men and women at speaking events involving speakers whose religious views require such segregation.

The document in fact goes far beyond that. It is worth having a look at the http://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/highereducation/Documents/2013/ExternalSpeakersInHigherEducationInstitutions.pdf, even if you find yourself quickly lost in its jungle of procedures and multifarious ‘considerations’.

Such as this assertion: “Institutions must ensure that their external speaker processes adapt in response to geopolitical or socioeconomic events, legislative changes and other factors”. What does that even mean? Why ‘must’ they ‘adapt’? The thought-process behind that  repulsive sentence is a totalitarian land-grab to bring intellectual activity under the direct control of those few anointed invariably progressive High Wizards who proclaim the correct ‘geopolitical and socioeconomic factors’ that fall to be considered.

It’s hard to decide what part of this text is the most horrible. Yes, it takes 44 pages to 'guide' Universities on how to invite a speaker. The winner by a clear head is the flowchart in the Chapter Effective External Speaker Processes (sic) that purports to describe the steps needed to invite a speaker to an event and then host the event: the ensuing detailed description of the different ‘steps’ needed to accomplish this task takes 11 pages of impenetrable micromanaged bureaucracy.

This whole section was drafted by Professor Ceausescu with helpful contributions from Rector Stalin and Sub-Deans Kafka and Khomeinei. It simply does not wash to open a document with the bold assertion that “freedom of speech lies at the heart of universities’ missions” (sic) but then propose procedures for bringing in external speakers that in substance are so convoluted and oppressive as to deter any normal person from wanting to take part in them. 

If you have somehow managed to get through all this rubbish, the main interest lies in the External Speaker Case Studies, where the text looks at possible tricky scenarios to suggest how they might be handled.

Let’s be generous here. Universities do have some specific problems in that assorted extremists and lunatics within the student masses (or the academic staff) are always looking to advance their respective causes by bringing to the University notorious fanatics and/or disrupting speakers they dislike. A precedent in one area will be seized upon to drive wedges in other areas. And merely managing the intended furore healthily and safely can be awkward if enough conflict is deliberately stoked up by rival views for PR purposes. So these Case Studies are of interest.

The first Case Study (No Platform Policy) has the British National Party being invited to speak, in the face of a ‘no platform’ policy adopted by the local student union. Here the advice appears to lean in favour of the event proceeding with some careful planning, as freedom of expression trumps the student union’s puny politics. Good.

The third Case Study (Controversial Views and Charity Legislation) looks at whether a speaker from Saudi Arabia who advocates the introduction of Sharia Law in the UK might damage the university’s reputation as a charity (why this reputation might be so damaged is not explained). Again, the advice leans towards letting then event proceed, “taking into account the Equality Act, including its Public Sector Equality Duty obligations”. Lawks.

The fourth Case Study features Israel and Palestine, where a pro-Palestinian speaker is threatened with disruption by pro-Israel hecklers and is indeed heckled by some people are asked to leave the meeting and do so voluntarily. The fact that in the real world of academic life it is overwhelmingly pro-Israel speakers who are shouted down by anti-Zionist elements is not used here. Still, once again the speaking event proceeds, albeit with some small excitement, and life goes on.

So what of the now legendary second Case Study, on Segregation? This is a belter.

Here the speaker is an ultra-orthodox religious type who expresses the wish that the event be segregated according to gender. Feminists and others oppose this. The idea offered is to have segregated seating organised in a way that no one gender is disadvantaged, eg by having an area for men and an adjacent area for women: “On the face of the case study, assuming the side-by-side segregated seating arrangement is adopted, there does not appear to be any discrimination on gender grounds”.

Hmm. Maybe there should be a non-segregated area side-by-side with those segregated areas, as without that the legal protection of feminist ‘beliefs’ might be undermined! But this in turn might lead to the speaker having his/her beliefs ‘curtailed unlawfully’. So on balance the views of those who oppose segregation do not require an institution to stifle (sic) a segregated debate where the segregation accords with a genuinely-held religious belief. Aaargh.

Reading through the tortured Guidance analysis showing wimpy academics dancing on the end of this pin I can not but recall Millie Tant and her Radical Conscience.

The conclusion reached by this Guidance in this Case Study is important for two reasons.

First and foremost, it is exactly the wrong conclusion.

Faced with a request for segregated seating, a University should just say no. There is no good reason in law, logic or practice why a speaker’s request to segregate people should trump the right of all members of a university audience to sit where they damn well like.

Why should your right to offend me by demanding segregated seating trump my right to be offended by your rudeness? You can have your way only by denying me reasonable options. That is unfair. If some women or men want to sit ‘separately’ to express their religious or other eccentric convictions, they can get their early and bag some seats accordingly. Then take their chances on who sits next to them, like everyone else.

Second, it defers to mumbo-jumbo. Those religions that insist on gender segregation of this crude sort are running on belief, not reason:

“Every dictator is a mystic, and every mystic is a potential dictator. A mystic craves obedience from men, not their agreement. He wants them to surrender their consciousness to his assertions, his edicts, his wishes, his whims … what he seeks is power over reality and over men’s means of perceiving it.”

Giving in to this sort of thing by accepting gender segregation means ceding intellectual and moral space to irrationality at the expense of rationality, precisely what universities should not be doing.

Note that basing decisions on fairness and good sense does not deny any speaker the chance to speak, or ‘stifle’ his/her puny religious convictions. All it does is say that if some hard choices need to be made, we lean in favour of maximum freedom of choice for everyone.

And that’s that. If you don’t like that, too bad. Go and be irrational somewhere else.

Memo to University Vice-Chancellors: If you are thinking of promulgating guidance like this, don’t outsource it to lawyers. Get in on two sides at most. Civilisation and freedom are not about rules. They’re about principles.

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That Iran Deal and Negotiations Theory

24th November 2013

Telegraph Blogs have published my piece on the latest deal on Iran and its nuclear programmes:

All negotiations boil down to a few existential issues: Security, Resources, Control, Reputation/Recognition and Time/Risk. Plus, depending on how the other aspects are tackled, Trust. Skilful negotiators trade both within and between these ideas.

How does the Iran nuclear negotiation look from this point of view?

Basically, for years Iran has given every impression of being bent on developing nuclear weapons under guise of a civil nuclear programme, and cranked up provocative anti-Israel rhetoric. The West with varying support from Russia and China has leant hard on Iran through economic and political sanctions to try to head off "weaponisation". These sanctions have hit Iran and its people hard, to the point of bringing to power a "relative moderate", Hassan Rouhani. Rouhani indicated that he was ready for a new start.

Hence this deal. The essence is simple. Iran promises to take certain specific steps consistent with scaling back its nuclear programme and denying itself nuclear weapons processes, promising explicitly that “under no circumstances will Iran ever seek or develop any nuclear weapons”. In return sanctions are eased. This agreement lasts six months while a comprehensive agreement is negotiated.

Right at the heart of the agreement is Trust: how can the West trust the Iranians not to cheat? This is answered by bringing in an unusually intrusive international inspection regime led by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), whose expert inspectors will have daily access to key Iranian installations. In return Western governments will need to do what they have promised by way of suspending/easing sanctions to show Iran that they too can be trusted.

Thus Iran gets Resources (eased sanctions), shares Control over its programme (with the IAEA), and wins new international Recognition as a sane partner with a right to nuclear energy. The Time/Risk factor is managed by phasing in the agreement over this first six months period, in a step-by-step building of new mutual Trust.

The West plus Russia and China (and Israel) get the Security and Control that come from keeping a tight watch on Iranian nuclear activities, and (hope President Obama and the EU) the Recognition at home and around the world arising from a major diplomatic success. The fact that Russia and China have been closely involved in negotiating this deal significantly raises the stakes at the United Nations for Iran if any future Iranian leadership tries to wriggle back from its promises on weaponisation.

What about Israel? What security margin can Israel accept when it comes to Iran and its civil nuclear programmes? There is no good or principled answer to this. If Israel thinks that Iran (a) might quickly develop a nuclear bomb and (b) use it against Israel, any outcome that leaves a substantial Iranian civil nuclear programme intact is potentially dangerous.

To this extent Iran has achieved a key success in this war of nerves, by winning explicit acknowledgement of its right to nuclear energy and associated technology. Israel now finds itself in a new balance of Security and Risk: having to live with a civil nuclear Iran that is never far from speedy weaponization but, thanks to those busy IAEA inspections, never quite gets there...

It's noteworthy that this year I have been part of the Ambassador Partnership Technique team that gave Negotiations Skills training to both OPCW inspectors (now deployed to Syria) and IAEA inspectors (now going to be very busy in Iran). These are are all smart, sensible people who have to do amazingly delicate and important work and show studious professionalism plus good faith as they do it. So good luck to them.

What does it all mean?

Perhaps the Arab Spring traumas in their very different shapes and sizes are leading to a new constellation of forces across the Middle East. Iran for years has opted to be a large part of the problem, exporting terrorism and odious rhetoric. Under new management, elected into office in part because of sustained sanctions pressure, it appears to have concluded that for the time being it is better to regain its economic strength by cooperating politely with international opinion on its nuclear programmes. As neither Israel nor Iran's potential to move fairly quickly to a weapons programme if all else fails are going to disappear soon, why not play this one rather longer?

Down the road the Saudis are fed up with American flirting with Iran and vacillation in Syria/Egypt. And the USA is fast becoming less dependent on foreign oil imports. So that traditionally friendly relationship is now wobbling. But is that such a bad thing in the greater scheme of things? What do the Saudis bring to international relations that we all can't do without?

Russia again does well out of this process, having positioned itself craftily between Iran and the USA and so being a solid part of the final deal that in its 'optics' mainly reinforces the UN Security Council P5 members as the driver of the outcome. China too gets part of the praise and shows that it is willing to be part of constructive wider international security negotiations.

The EU here has shown what can be achieved by colleactive action when Germany/France/UK join forces to drive the policy and the rest of the EU dutifully signs up. Catherine Ashton has a good personal style, and some female instincts have no doubt helped create a rather different and better mood at key moments, even with the overwhelmingly male Islamistic Iranian delegations. France has raised its reputation by playing tough at an earlier stage to stiffen the package.

Israel? Israel gets a nuclear Iran but an Iran tied down by IAEA inspectors and pondering the fact that serious deviation towards weaponisation now risks Iran losing any lingering support from Russia and China once and for all. Not a perfect outcome for Tel Aviv, but a perfect outcome was not available. And arguably Israel is a tad safer today with this agreement than it was last week without one.

In short, one of the things I learned from my career is that the idea of a 'window of opportunity' really does exist in diplomacy. Sometimes for no obvious reason or against all expectations the diplomatic kaleidoscope twists and creates a new pattern that allows quite new steps to be taken. But they must be taken quickly.

In this case Western capitals (yes, armed with lots of tough intelligence information) decided that the new Iranian leadership were sufficiently sincere about wanting to change course that it was worth investing in serious diplomatic effort to achieve a sharp change of course. This sort of thing is always risky, as the 'true' intentions of the other side may never be known. Plus the other side itself may not know its true intentions.

On this occasion the risk (so far) has been worth taking. If somehow the agreement sticks and a full settlement is reached in the next year or so, an impressive step forward towards normalising other relationships in that troubled region will have been accomplished.

Or not. Maybe the very fact of this agreement will encourage those forces who want to take advantage of the studied detachment if not weakness shown by President Obama and press on with destabilising Egypt, Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Will the UN P5 + Germany + EU be able to summon again enough unity of purpose and pressure to deal with those awful messes too?

Update: For the contrary view that the whole thing is a ruinous surrender to Iranian extremism that leaves all of us worse off, try John Bolton.


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Destroying Syria's CW Stocks

18th November 2013

How to destroy Syria's CW stocks, now that OPCW experts say that they have demolished Syria's CW-making facilities?

Not so easy to do this within Syria with a passing civil war raging on. So take the CW stocks to somewhere safe and do it nicely there.

Hmm. But where?

Albania looked like a plausible place - it had destroyed legacy CW stocks of its own, a loyal US ally, generally placid these days when it comes to accepting Western norms in principle.

Oops. Even Albania has environmental protesters.

Meanwhile it looks tricky even to get these hazardous materials to the Syria coast from where they they might be sent somewhere, or other:

A senior American official said: “That’s the problem — no one has attempted this before in a civil war, and no one is willing to put troops on the ground to protect this stuff, including us."

Good point. Therefore what?

Syria’s chemical weapons material may be on the high seas for a long time, as officials seek a country willing and able to destroy it. Already there are fears that the cargo ships bearing the material could become the weapons equivalent of a barge loaded with garbage that left Long Island in 1987 but could not find a place to unload for four months.

American law prohibits the importation of chemical weapons for destruction here, and Russia says it is still overwhelmed by the task of destroying its own stockpiles.

The more immediate concern is that over the next six weeks, the material — more than 600 tons of precursor chemicals, mostly stored in one- and two-ton containers — will present a huge, slow-moving target for the Syrian opposition groups at war with the Assad government — and sometimes in conflict with one another.

Curious how President Obama can waive parts of Obamacare legislation but not this prohibition on importing CW for destruction in such a good international cause.

And poor little Russia, so proud of its diplomatic triumph in securing this Syria CW deal and rich enough to pile huge sums of money into building more weapons systems, yet so 'overwhelmed' with its own Cold War CW stocks that it can't find somewhere in its 11 mainly empty time-zones to store this stuff and sort out the problem as and when.

Why not bring the CW materials to the UK for destruction, if only for the delicious spectacle of watching the Lefty-Greens freak out as they try to reconcile their adoration of Obama + hatred of nasty weapons + lofty internationalist principles with the need to object to anything the government proposes?

Anyway, let's worry about where this stuff goes once it is actually, you know, going:

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, or O.P.C.W., which announced the plan for removing the material late on Friday, is expected to train Syrian forces to package, seal and safeguard the containers for transportation in truck convoys to the port from 23 declared weapons sites. Then the organization has to oversee the maritime voyage — assuming that a destination can be arranged.

The plan “sets ambitious milestones to be met by the government of Syria,” Ahmet Uzumcu, the director general of the disarmament organization, said Friday. “This next phase will be the most challenging, and its timely execution will require the existence of a secure environment for the verification and transport of chemical weapons.”

Under an agreement reached in September, Russia and the United States are to work closely with the disarmament agency and Syrian officials to develop a plan for “the security of the monitoring and destruction mission.” But the accord noted the “primary responsibility of the Syrian government in this regard.”

In other words, the key part of this scheme from the Russian point of view is well on track - the USA has to invest in Assad to make progress!

“This material would obviously be a target for any opposition element,” one senior Defense Department official said. “But we have seen reporting — both O.P.C.W. and others — that indicates the regime is serious about security.”

Well, I daresay they are. Especially their own.

Isn't this a good time to use market forces? Russia and USA proclaim a huge sum of money available to any country willing to take these stocks and destroy them properly under OPCW supervision. Then see who most needs the money and associated jobs/prestige. And who most cares about 'international solidarity'?

Failing that, doesn't Saudi Arabia have a lot of money and a lot of nice safe desert?

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